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Misery Acres: An Investigative Series

The first article in Robert Caro’s 1963 Misery Acres series, which uncovered a land scam targeting New York retirees.Copyright 1963 Newsday, inc. reprinted with permission

AT HOME ON THE RANGE. That may look like barren rangeland stretching to the horizon but, as Newsday staff correspondent Robert A. Caro demonstrates, all it takes is a vivid imagination (and a bit of Chianti) to picture comfortable homes, broad streets, and all the other amenities of a bustling new community at a development called Sacramento Ranches, near Kingman, Ariz. In a study of mail-order land buying, Caro found that imagination was the secret ingredient in many such projects…

The ads pushing a sensational new land boom paint glowing pictures of new homesites in the sun country, beckoning the weary to a life of communal luxury. But reality is sometimes harsh.

Mohave County, Ariz.-When explorers came to Mohave County in 1858, they found a desert so dry that they had to import camels to cross it.

For a century thereafter, the desert remained largely unchanged. A searing sun baked it in summer. Sandstorms whipped it in winter. Only yucca plants and an occasional mesa broke its endless expanses of gray-brown sand. Recently, however, there was an addition to the landscape–a large sign. “This,” the sign says, “is Paradise Acres.”

Not that the desert itself has changed. It hasn’t. Its millions of parched acres are still all but empty of human habitation. Attempts to discover adequate sources of water have failed. Says a Mohave County official: “There are places out there that a lizard couldn’t live in.”

But Mohave has become the physical hub of a revolutionary new development in the history of American real estate, the sale of tremendous tracts of raw, often-undeveloped acreage through the mail on low-cost installment. plans. This development began in Florida about 1953. Today, no less than 350 separate Florida real estate promotions are being advertised outside that state’s borders. Two years ago, the development suddenly burst out on the plains of the Southwest on a scale that dwarfed that of the Florida boom. Hard-selling promoters bought up vast chunks of desert and grazing land in New Mexico, Texas, California and Arizona at bargain-basement prices, hacked the land up into lots, launched multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns and sold the lots sight unseen at many times the price they had paid, usually on terms of $10 down and $10 a month. No one knows the exact dimensions ‘of the boom but estimates of sales for 1962 alone run to $700,000,000.

Show Some Results

Some of the promotions spawned by the boom have already produced spectacular results. Florida promoters have created complete new cities, designed mainly for retired persons, on what had been for centuries nothing but desolate wetlands. Carol City, for example, which is not yet on any map, already has 10,000 residents. In Arizona, subdivisions have caused the deserts near Phoenix to blossom with luxury ranch homes.

Some of these promotions are sill highly speculative-holdings on which thousands of lots have been sold are still desolate wetlands or desert-but at least the owners have some sort of plans for an eventual conversion and there is a reasonable chance that it win some day take place.

Some of these promotions. however, seem blatantly worthless. In Florida, they include tracts of land in the Everglades and similar swamps in which there are no roads, and “building lots” are covered by water much of the year. In Arizona, promoters who include many of the same men behind unpromising Florida ventures have purchased chunks of open desert. Without making-or realistically planning-any improvements at all, they have peddled this land through the mail on a scale so vast that the National Association of Better Business Bureaus has termed the boom “the greatest land scandal in American history” and officials in statehouses across the country are working feverishly to develop laws capable of holding the worst promoters in check.

Mohave County has become the hub of the Arizona boom. The reason is simple. The basis of the boom is land, and if Mohave has anything to spare, it is land. With 13,260 square miles, in fact, Mohave is the fifth largest county in the United States, and since its 1960 population was only 7,736 persons (6,000 of whom live in Kingman, the county seat), there are obviously plenty of square miles open for development.

Sounds Like Paradise

Advertisements flooding media in the North make this land seem like the Garden of Eden. “$10 RESERVES 1 1/4 acres of ARIZONA land! $795 BUYS IT!” they trumpet. “Health and wealth for you in the wonderful world of the West! Blue skies nearly every single day, pure air…the land of play and outdoor living the year round!” The expanses of desert around Kingman, which grow nothing green, have suddenly blossomed out with bright signs advertising “Paradise Acres”-and “Sunward Ho! Ranchos,” “Desert Rose Rancheros” and “Shangri-La Estates.”

Is it, perhaps, a bit warm for Shangri-La? In some parts of the Arizona desert the temperature can reach 140 degrees and the Automobile Association of America warns tourists not to leave their cars for a stroll lest they be suns truck.

Is it a little short of the amenities of civilization? Kingman’s most famous son is Andy Devine and a main street of the city is named Andy Devine Avenue, but after you’ve looked at the street sign for a, while your choice of entertainment is narrowed down to the movie at Kingman’s one theater or bingo. When night falls over the desert, blotting out the gaudy “Paradise Acres” signs, there is nothing to be seen but miles of blackness, unrelieved by a single light. You can drive for 50 miles without passing another car.

But the disillusionment is most apparent when you compare one glowing advertisement closely to the reality behind it.

Says an ad for Lake Mead Rancheros: “The Rancheros are livable now. Not raw, undeveloped and inaccessible land paid out, waiting for people …water available, roads, electricity, phones…wide-open living…located in the famous Lake Mead Recreation Area, where 3 1/2 million vacation annually.”

“Wide-open living,” it turns out, is an understatement. After reaching Lake Mead Rancheros (by turning off Route 66 19 miles out of Kingman and bumping six miles over an unpaved road), the visitor finds that living there would be 18 miles wide, in fact-as well as 30 miles long. That’s the size of the Rancheros’ site and there’s certainly nothing on it to fence you in. Not a, house, not a street, not a telephone pole or power line would keep you from enjoying the full sweep of that pure air. There is nothing on the vast site but a huge sign advertising the rancheros and a few sticks representing street signs. The desert stretches away endlessly. Standing there, broiling in the hot sun, you feel like an ant, on a huge tan rug.

Water is available, too. It’s available from a pipe that sticks ,out of the ground. The pipe, which is a comfortable 14 miles from some Ranchero units, is attached to a meter. Anyone who wants to come live on his lot can simply bring a water tank to the pipe and fill it-at 50 cents, per 100 gallons. In addition, a Ranchero representative back in Kingman says, a water company will be only too glad to bring in water to anyone who wants it-on 24 hours’ notice and at a similar rate.

Roads? Certainly, there are roads. Or anyway, paths-little tracks scraped in the topsoil. And, the salesman says, electricity and power will be installed just as soon as “enough people build out there to make it feasible.” Exactly how people are going to build there without any chance of getting mortgage money is not explained, (“Mortgage money to build out there?” says a Kingman banker. “Are you kidding?”) And Lake Mead? Well, with good eyes, you can see it-from the top of a mountain 30 miles away.

But the most staggering single fact about Lake Mead Rancheros is that 3,000 persons somewhere off in the North have been lured by that ad into purchasing homesites there. Owner Dory Auerbach, whose Miami-based firm is also peddling “speculative acreage” in nine separate Florida promotions, says that if a large number of these purchasers move onto the property, he can simply tie in with “the water lines that supply the city of Kingman.” But Robert L, Peart, chairman of the Mohave County Board of Supervisors, says that Kingman’s water supply is so low that the city itself is hunting for new water sources and won’t allow the Rancheros to tie in. Asked if he felt that use of the word “homesite” misrepresented the property, Auerbach said: “I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that because the word ‘homesite’ means this: ‘Can you build a home, at the property and live in it?…The answer is Yes… I say you can build on every Ranchero.”

If some desert subdivisions are characterized by a lack of development, there are other in which Mohave County officials feel development has been both rapid and dramatic. One of these is Lake Mohave Ranchos.

The owners of Lake Mohave Ranchos also bought up a vast hunk of raw desert at rock-bottom prices. But; 35-year-old William H. Parker, a San Bernardino, Calif., real estate broker and a Harvard graduate, combed the desert with his partners until, in 1959, they found a really, suitable site. It was an 86,000-acre cattle ranch, one of the few with adequate water from underground springs and a paved county road running through it.. And it really is near Lake Mohave. Even more important, the site has sufficient elevation {3,500 ;to 7,000 feet) so that the unpleasant heat of the desert floor below is eliminated. Says Deputy Arizona Real Estate Commissioner Bert Jagerson: “Most of these developers just took whatever land they could get. There are good places to live out here, places in which the desert is lovely. But you’ve got to find them. Parker did.”

Money, Time Spent The young real estate broker and his partners spent $55,000 on road-building equipment and paid $20 an hour to surveying teams-for three years. They hired an “operational manager,” a smiling, raw-boned Texan named Tom White, and put him to work on the site. They gave him a crew of six men to maintain and to help out the first families who moved in.

“We had to baby them,” White recalls. “They were mostly elderly retired people and we had to make them happy. We repaired their washing machines, we helped them put up the TV aerials, we hauled people in to the doctor.”

White also fought for the community. He argued with the county and with skeptical utility companies for water mains, telephones, school bus service and power lines. When utilities demanded money for power line-laying, Parker put it up. Today, driving toward the Ranchos, a visitor sees at first only more of the empty, barren desert. Then, as he tops a rise, there appears before him a restaurant, a motel, a neatly kept trailer park (in which 1oo families are living while waiting for their homes to be finished) and 90 pretty, well-kept ranch houses. And there is a country club, social center for the residents, complete with clubhouse, tennis, croquet and badminton courts, children’s playgrounds, social hall and swimming pool. In the middle of the Arizona desert, once so dry that ranchers staged blood feuds over water rights, is a carefully lettered sign: “No eating on the pool deck.”

Lake Mohave Ranchos is, old-time Mohave County residents say, a good example of what can be done by a developer willing to do more with his property than just sell it off as fast as he can. With America’s over-65 population soaring (by the year 2000, it is expected to reach 10 per cent of the country’s total population), more such developments are needed if even a small fracti9n of these people are to be given the chance to enjoy the life in the sun they want at reasonable cost.

Unfortunately, such developments are all too few. In Mohave County, there are 335 separate subdivisions. In one of these alone, no less than 68,000 lots have been sold. But the vast desert is still populated mainly by the subdividers’ large signs.


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